Failing under pressure is a physical event, your pituitary gland generates more adrenalin that you central nervous system can handle. Your brain shifts into overdrive for the emergency, your digestive system shuts down to pump blood into your muscles and touches off in your stomach the queasy fluttering sensation known as butterflies. Your heart pounds faster, your bronchial tubes tighten and your skin feels clammy. As your breathing turns shallow you suddenly feel desperate for something to drink, your reflexes have no snap and your muscles knot.
Now you’ve psyched yourself into such a state that you can not function, concentrate or devise a strategy because your judgment is off. As you composure evaporates so does your self-confidence. You feel rushed, confused, finally distracted and indecisive. You miss an easy opportunity to score.
Concentrate on what is needed, and not on the actual technique you would like to do. Strive for sensible objectives rather than making irrational demands. The fight who is preoccupied with getting a knockout is guaranteed disappointment.
Knowing that mistakes are inevitable helps, worrying about missed opportunities will only create more pressure.
The most important asset you have is your mental attitude. While everyone should always want to win, being afraid of losing will only lead to either losing or not going forward when you could possibly have won.
At every tournament we watch competitor unravel and lose, due to pressure of competition. The pressure create in the competitor’s own mind is what brings them undone.
Thinking too much and too hard (rather than letting the body operate on its own), frustration, fear of losing all inhibit long learned skills and cause a potential winner to fail.
Fighting with poise is a prerequisite of a champion. We have all watched the champions come out cool and relaxed, then proceed to demolish the opponent who is far better than the fight would indicate. The champion often stays unruffled under great stress to come through in the end.
To a great extent it is more a question of recognising the symptoms as much as doing anything to get rid of them. When the pressure is causing you to ‘choke’ (tighten up) you must first recognise the problem and then realise it can be overcome.
So often the other competitors marvel at the competitor who remains cool no matter what. Most seem to think they (the other competitor) is born with that ability. Not so. The ability to relax is within us all. We decided whether we are our own worst enemy or not. The body will do what ever you tell it to do. Is is you who decides to either let your nerves run you or your run your nerves. Nerves can be a friend or an enemy. It is totally up to you. It is a question on self-control, and self control can be learnt. By practising self-control techniques the competitor can turn emotion into a plus instead of a minus, convert a situation of pressure from a liability into an asset. Fighters, athletes, workers, students, even housewives can all perform better if the symptoms are recognised and acted upon.
‘The most important asset you have is your mental attitude…’
Training yourself mentally as well as physically must go hand in hand, without both in tandem no competitor will be a consistent winner. Mental conditioning can pre-determine success or failure.
Many a competitor will tell you of times when the legs will not move, the arms will not co-ordinate or they keep miss-timing techniques. So how does a competitor overcome these problems, even when they recognise them? Firstly, control the breathing. Breath evenly and deeply through the diaphragm (as taught in your training). Avoid shallow breaths as this will cause hyperventilation and dizziness. Regular and even breathing pumps fresh oxygen into the blood cells and body tissues to replace lost energy, sending revitalised blood to the brain, lower tension and lifting concentration.
The trick is to do the technique that is possible at the time, bearing in mind that the simpler the task the better chance of success if the competitor is under a lot of pressure and the tension is overly high. Complex or wish-washy plans are more likely to fail when you are under tension. So when you hype is high keep it simple. research has shown that peak arousal leads to regression under stress. In other words no matter how much talent the competitor may have they will always fall back into a primitive level skill. The reason is that the key muscles work against each other while under tension, while relaxed ones work in harmony. It would then follow that such techniques as Gedan-Mawashi-Geri, Tsuki, and Mae-Geri have a better change of success when the hype is overly high, and return to the more difficult techniques if and when the tension is under control.
One conventional system for relaxation is ‘progressive muscle relaxation’. Research has shown that muscles relax better after being tensed. This reaction is electrochemical, squeezing out the calcium from the muscle fibre. Before starting, tense each of your major muscles for about five seconds then relax, starting from the legs and working up. Once the muscles are stretched they will be more limber, putting you more at ease. Another method can, and should, be used prior to going to the competition area. Visualise what you intend to do during the match, mentally practise everything you want to happen, going through each technique in your own mind.
All this will not replace the constant practise needed to perfect the techniques, but gradually you’ll learn to regulate your breathing, to relax your muscles and to visualise what you want to do. Soon you will do a better job of metabolising stress in your central nervous system, with experience (and in the long run experience is a big factor) you’ll form a virtual immunity against choking in a tight spot.
Seasoned competitors welcome pressure, as they know it brings out the best in them. They will all tell you of sometimes having great difficulty with a totally unseeded competitor after they had thought it would be an easy match. They welcome an opportunity to meet a new challenge, absorbing pressure, transforming frustration and even anger into motivation and ambition. With pressure on, the tough minded competitor will grow in stature, vaulting to new heights and horizons.
Shihan John Taylor